Frontera Fund News

How Border Walls Increase Immigration

The border wall near Sasabe, Arizona.
The border wall near Sasabe, Arizona.

Somebody should send Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán a memo.

As the presidential candidate stumps for a 2,000-mile border wall and the Hungarian prime minister razor-wires off the Serbian border, a pair of new studies reveals that border walls counterintuitively increase the population of undocumented immigrants.

Economists Todd Pugatch and Sarah Bohn examined the consequences of quadrupling the number of security agents on the U.S.-Mexico border between 1994 and 2011.

They found that Arizona has 33,000 more undocumented migrants than it would have had without all the agents, walls, drones, and motion detectors. That’s because border security shifted immigration from Texas and California into other states.

“What our paper is showing is how, at a given time, immigrants are dispersed,” Pugatch said in a statement. “It’s like squeezing a balloon. The total amount of air is the same, but the shape is changed.”

During the same time, the total population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. rose from 5.7 million in 1995 to a peak of 12.2 million in 2007 before settling down to about 11.3 million.

U.S. Undocumented Immigrant Population

So, the U.S. government spent $130 billion on border security in two decades, yet the undocumented immigrant population rose by 5.5 million.

Border wall advocates might argue that even more migrants would have entered the U.S. without the spike in security. But border security actually caused the increase in immigrants, says soon-to-be-published research from Princeton and the University of Guadalajara.

Before the 1990s, people flowed as freely as tumbleweeds across the invisible border. Between 1965 and 1985, estimates show that 86 percent of undocumented migrants who entered the U.S. were offset by other undocumented people voluntarily returning to their homeland.

But ramped-up security made crossing the border extremely difficult, deadly and expensive, as migrants were driven into more remote areas and drug cartels hijacked the human smuggling industry.

That didn’t stop migrants from coming to the U.S., the study says, but it does stop immigrants from daring to leave.

What was once back-and-forth migration driven largely by seasonal jobs has increasingly turned into a one-way journey. And instead of returning to their families south of the border, many migrants choose to bring their spouses and children with them to settle in the U.S., often having American-born children.

As a result, beefed-up border security has added 4 million undocumented immigrants to the U.S. population, the study concludes. At the same time, it’s led to the deaths of more than 6,000 people.

So it’s not logical for politicians to advocate spending tens of billions of dollars building, manning and upkeeping a border wall. First, these politicians are trying to keep out people who actually contribute billions of dollars to the United States. Second, the wall would increase the undocumented population in the U.S., defeating its architects’ purpose. Last and certainly not least, walls are deadly, destructive, inhumane, and un-American.

But politicians aren’t advocating building walls for logical reasons. They’re doing it to play on people’s fears. And they’re hoping a fearful population won’t look beyond rhetoric or do simple math.